In the fall of 2014, Helena, Montana teacher Julie M. challenged her students to apply to become Bezos Scholars.
“I encourage young people to step up to leadership opportunities and Bezos Scholars Program is an exceptional opportunity,” shared Julie. Because only 12 students are selected through the process, Julie encourages her students to also use the application as a practice round for college applications – a chance to write about themselves to someone they don’t know, and to reflect on their goals and accomplishments.
“A competitive college application process reflects the same type of effort. Learning how to compete in a rigorous pool of highly qualified applicants is something students from Montana often face for the first time when applying for out of state colleges. Most kids walk away from me when I challenge them to apply but I want them to learn that making the effort is not a waste of time, even if they are not selected” says Julie.
That fall, then high school junior Braden S. didn’t walk away from Julie’s challenge. He took it head on and worked hard on his application, identifying financial literacy as a community need he’d like to address. As he worked on his application, he became invested in the project and the goal of becoming a Bezos Scholar.
Once submitted, Braden and Julie waited eagerly to hear back. After weeks of anticipation and interviews with the Bezos Scholars Program team, Braden was ultimately selected as a finalist but not as a Scholar. Being selected as one of 25 finalists is a major achievement, yet still, this was a huge blow to Braden who had invested so much time and energy into the process and was so close to being selected. Though it was almost five years ago, Julie still remembers Braden’s excitement and passion grow throughout the application process and the disappointment that followed. They both took the summer to process and reflect before deciding what was next.
As the new school year came into view, Julie reached out to Braden and posed the question, “Do you still want to do your project?”
Julie gave Braden time and room to decide, noting that, “Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that you’re going to proceed with something when you got told you were not selected which can make you feel like you didn’t measure up in some way. It’s important for parents and educators to allow for a letdown situation to happen. You can’t just go straight from ‘I was rejected’ to ‘I’m going to do it anyway or make this into a learning moment.’”
Ultimately, Braden chose to move forward with the project idea he wrote about in his application which was geared towards high school students thinking about what steps they could take now regarding their financial future.
“Thinking back, financial literacy almost sounds like something an adult might impose on youth,” reflects Braden. “It doesn’t sound very exciting. But at the time, I had recently embarked on bolstering my own financial stability, through minor steps like studying up on a Roth IRA, starting one, and putting a little bit of money in it. And I found that fulfilling and kind of exciting because it was cool to build a bit of a foundation and financial security for my future.”
Financial literacy isn’t a topic most teens are thinking about in high school, but they do think about money. Money management is a valuable skill to learn for people of all ages.
“It’s something that’s generally not done,” notes Braden. “Not by any peers I knew, not even by a surprising number of adults too.”
Combining his passion with a community need, Braden started planning his event. He collaborated with a local financial planner to develop, provide, and host an insightful workshop geared towards high school students thinking about what steps they could take now regarding their financial future. He worked with the school district to pass out informational flyers to teachers and stopped by classrooms to invite his peers to attend.
“It was a really interesting event,” shares Julie. “I definitely saw people there enjoying themselves. I think the take away was that they learned to start thinking about their financial future much sooner than they may have otherwise. I also remember this event being successful because my two children now have Roth IRAs because of it.”
“Anytime you’re setting up an event for the very first time, trying to make all those pieces work, it is a challenge,” notes Julie. “I always think success does not look like the number of people in the room. Success looks like the fact that you’ve decided to dream an idea and then actually had it take place.”
Looking back on the Bezos Scholar Program application process and his financial literacy event, Braden shares, “I think what’s been interesting about that experience is that somehow I keep learning from it, despite how long ago it was. At the time, it was really hard to see it as a success because I was always comparing it to other events I’d seen. But as I’ve journeyed on, I’m more able to see it as a success and as a result, I think I’m better able to make goals and judge success.”
Braden currently attends college at the Minerva Schools at KGI which is a new university that engages students in studying in major cities across seven countries. We spoke to Braden while he was in Buenos Aires; he plans to be part of their second graduating class in 2020. Julie teaches in Helena, Montana and still challenges her students to apply to the Bezos Scholars Program every year.